Say the words "who is accountable?" and you will probably see people running for cover.
The word accountability evokes a strange mix of righteousness and fear. Righteousness from those who are angry or frustrated when something breaks down and who will only be satisfied when there is justice. Fear from those who wonder if blame and consequences could be coming their way, whether they are "guilty" or not.
Hearing those words can feel a bit like seeing a police car in your rear view mirror; even if you're driving the speed limit you still feel that pit in your stomach.
As a leader, saying those words can make you feel like that police officer, despite the fact that you would rather not have to wield the baton of blame and consequences to begin with.
That's why it can be hard to talk about accountability. Unfortunately, if you can't talk about it, you probably aren't going to be able to create a culture that is based on it.
There are three things you can do to cause a shift in people's relationship with accountability, transforming it from a source of frustration and discomfort to a source of high performance.
1. Upgrade your own mindset first
Your thinking is the source of your actions, both the things you say and the things you do. Therefore leaders, if you do not have a culture of accountability already, chances are your own mindset regarding accountability needs to change. That begins with getting crystal clear about what accountability is and what it isn't.
Accountability is the consistency with which your actions and results match your commitments. Said another way, to be accountable means to be committed to honoring your word. This includes commitments as big as the results a company promises to their shareholders or the service level they promise to their customers. It also applies to the promises individuals make to each other in the course of conducting their day-to-day business.
Accountability is not about doing or not doing the tasks assigned to us. It is about our relationship with the agreements we make with others, and the extent to which we honor those commitments.
What beliefs do you have that could be getting in the way of your ability to promote accountable thinking and behavior?
2. Negotiate more and assign less
When people say they want an accountable culture, what they typically want are individuals to take more ownership of their work and their results, and to do a better job overall at keeping their commitments without handholding.
When you assign tasks (aka delegate), consider that you are simply adding to someone's to do list, rather than ensuring they own the bigger results those tasks are intended to forward. When you make a request and give someone the opportunity to negotiate the terms (aka make agreements), they are more likely to take ownership.
If you want to create an accountable culture, instill the practice of negotiating for what you need from others to ensure mutual success at every level. Help people to create solid agreements with each other rather than simply funnel activities through the chain of command.
3. Hold people accountable for being and doing their best work
If you want compliant behavior, assigning blame and delivering consequences can be very effective.
Except it won't help you create an accountable culture. In fact, it's likely have to the opposite effect by causing people to keep their commitments small to make sure they don't mess up, rather than bold so they both make a bigger contribution and grow in the process.
Want people to be accountable, to own the promises they make and take personal responsibility for the impact of their follow through?
Then holding someone to account can't just be an after-the-fact reward or punishment. You must make sure you set people up to succeed from the moment you make a request of them. This is the only way you can reliably foster a culture that brings out the best in people and facilitates their ownership.
Consider that holding someone accountable begins with negotiating agreements that lead to mutual success and satisfaction. It doesn't end there though. Holding someone to account for being and doing their best work requires that you pay attention until success is achieved. If you find yourself having to assign blame and punishment after the fact, then you missed the opportunities along the way to ensure success. After all, isn't that ultimately what holding people to account is really all about - succeeding together?
Creating an accountable culture begins with the leaders in any organization. It begins with your willingness as a leader to change your mindset and personally develop the practices that will bring accountability to life in your day to day work.
Start walking your talk and people will follow.